The Book of Mormon – Palace Theatre, Manchester
Music, Book & Lyrics: Trey Parker, Robert Lopez & Matt Stone
Directors: Casey Nicholaw & Trey Parker
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
The hype around The Book of Mormon in Manchester is huge. Posters flood the city advertising its eleven-week run over the summer at The Palace Theatre. For any theatre-goer decanted to Mars over the last few years The Book of Mormon is the globe-conquering musical comedy poking fun at The Church of the Latter Day Saints. It is a Tony and Olivier Awards triumph and has residency in Manchester until late August– if you can get tickets for this incredible spectacle of jaw-dropping satire on … well lots of things taboo.
The Book of Mormon began life on Broadway in 2011 and has played in London’s West End since2013. Its first venture outside the capital grants it a wider audience. Its creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are best known as the brains behind South Park for over twenty years and Team America, whilst its musical inspiration, Robert Lopez, is a multi-award winning creative genius behind Avenue Q and Frozen. With seven years in development, The Book of Mormon is now reaping the rewards. It is hugely entertaining, incredibly funny, massively satirical, taboo-busting extravaganza. That said, it sparks much debate about the nature of the offence, context, and what is and what is not fair game.
Two young recruits into The Church of the Latter Day Saints, Elder Price (Kevin Clay) and Elder Cunningham (Connor Pierson) are sent to Africa to spread the word. They are missionaries sent to a remote village in Uganda to preach the word of God, Jesus, and their religious founder – an American by the name of Joseph Smith who, according to the Mormons, received the word of God on golden plates in 1827 America. For anyone who knows Parker and Stone’s work the ridicule is bound to be harsh and unforgiving. And it is. Price, much like the other recruits from his flock is pristine: perfect hair, bright straight teeth, fitted and pressed white shirt with black name badge – he is the model recruit. Cunningham, however, is anything but. Slightly overweight, spectacle-wearing Alan Carr reminiscent, is out of step in the first dance routine and struggling to keep up with his fresh, preppie, if not homo-erotic disciples come colleagues. The rest of the story almost writes itself: white American missionaries in Uganda attempting to convert black Africans to their Americanised two hundred-year-old branch of Christianity. There are so many taboos to be trampled and the creative team behind The Book of Mormon delight in bull-dozing over everything they can.
On arriving in Uganda an early number parodies Disney’s Hakuna Matata from The Lion King. However, the taste of this musical stall is set out early on discovering that this catchy ditty means anything other than “no worries”. Africa isn’t like The Lion King after all! The clan of young male Mormons already stationed in Uganda sing about suppressing homosexual thoughts while at the same time executing an intricate tap-dancing routine complete with surprise glittery pink waistcoats. The butt of the joke is very much this seemingly ridiculous branch of Christianity based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Where things become a little more uncomfortable for the traditional white middle-class theatre-goer are jokes references AIDs and female genital mutilation amongst the African villagers. Here context is everything and it is Parker and Stone’s intention to question why something is funny after the act of laughing. The joke becomes the absurdity that horrendous things exist in the world rather than the thing itself. It is a clever line to draw but also one that many would easily construe as the privileged white lauding it over the black ‘other’. And in a sense that is a huge part of the humour also. When the clan of pristine white men sing “Just like Bono I am African” there notion of the ‘white saviour’ also being sent up.
Debates about taste aside The Book of Mormon is quite simply stunning in every aspect. The lyrics are so detailed and witty that it is easy to miss a pearl of a joke while too busy laughing at the last one. Similar to Mel Brooks’ The Producers it is an extravagantly camp, joyous buddy story. It almost becomes an extended version of Springtime for Hitler in its indulgence of pushing the boundaries. There isn’t a single moment that loses energy as the cast of nearly thirty perform inch perfect, hitting every beat and landing every joke. Highlights are too many to mention but the fun of Spooky Mormon Hell Dream (in which Elder Price’s insecurities of faith are played out by devils, Lucifer and blond hair and blue eyed Jesus) is of such theatrical genius that the spontaneous standing ovation at the finale becomes the only way the audience can express their appreciation of such expertly executed stagecraft.
Veterans in the lead roles Kevin Clay as Elder Price and Connor Pierson as Elder Cunningham have such fun they make it look easy – anything but considering the enormous amount of Casey Nicholaw’s intricate choreography in each show-stopping routine. Die-hard fans have already queued in the rain to grab £15 preview tickets for this incredible spectacle and no wonder. It is a show with such hyperbole it would be easy to fall slightly short of the hype. It doesn’t. It is everything it promises to be.
Runs until 24 August 2019 | Image: Paul Coltas